The Baltimore Ravens are set to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in one of the most important games in the John Harbaugh era. The once mighty Ravens have plummeted to a mediocre record, yet again sitting at 4-4 at midseason. Not only are the Ravens playoff hopes on the line, but the future of the franchise is held in the balance. The Ravens have missed the playoffs for three consecutive years. A loss to the Steelers at this point in the season would drop the Ravens to 4-5. While a loss here would spell all but doom for the Baltimore, the Ravens can prevent such a catastrophe, and propel themselves back into the forefront of the playoff conversation. A win against the team’s nemesis would spark an unextinguishable fire underneath the Ravens. To ensure a victory on Sunday, the Ravens must succeed in three key factors.
Ravens Defense Must Create Turnovers
The Ravens defense started the year, imprinting the league with a fantastic impression. Baltimore’s defensive unit seemed unpenetrable. The team led the league in fewest points allowed, fewest yards allowed, and most sacks. But in the previous few weeks, the Ravens defense fell off its pedestal. Against the Saints, the Ravens were unable to stop commander Drew Brees and his forces from marching down the field. In the fourth quarter, the Saints easily scored 17 points and were ultimately rewarded with a victory. The following week, against the Carolina Panthers, the defense collapsed. Cam Newton ran wild on the team and repeatedly sliced through the secondary. Carolina ran away with the game, as the defense failed on nearly all accounts.
The Ravens must reestablish their presence on defense against the Steelers. Pittsburgh boasts a highly ranked offense. The Steelers rank 4th in offensive yards per game, 5th in points per game, and 2nd in passing yards per game. In order to show supremacy, the Ravens will need to force turnovers early and often. Takeaways have eluded the Ravens since forcing a fumble against the Saints in the opening quarter. If the Ravens defense can force turnovers, it will slow the high powered Steelers offense, while simultaneously poke holes in the confidence of the revenge-seeking rivals.
Offensive Line Must Stabilize
At the most crucial point of the season, Baltimore’s offensive line will not be playing at full strength. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right tackle James Hurst were both ruled out for Sunday’s game. Stanley is nursing a back injury sustained in last Sunday’s loss to the Panthers, and Hurst has missed the past two weeks with an ankle injury. While both tackles are very important to the success of the offensive line, Baltimore has a contingency plan. The Ravens listed both guards Alex Lewis and Bradley Bozeman as questionable to play on Sunday. Although nothing is definite, both are expected to play on Sunday.
Lewis will resume his position as the starting left guard, while Bozeman takes a step back and sits on the bench next to Hroniss Grasu as a backup. Entrenched starter Matt Skura will line up at center. The Ravens are expected to play Marshal Yanda at right guard and fill in the gaps at tackle with rookie Orlando Brown Jr. at right tackle, and second-year player Jermaine Eluemunor at left tackle. Alternatively, the Ravens could move Yanda to right tackle, Brown to left tackle, and put Bozeman at right guard. No matter the configuration, the Ravens offensive line needs to perform to its fullest potential on Sunday. Against the Panthers, it struggled to open any holes for Alex Collins on the ground and frequently allowed Joe Flacco to be thrown to the turf. Against T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Javon Hargrave, the offensive line has little room for error.
January Joe Must Make an Early Appearance
Like the past few seasons, Joe Flacco has struggled to stay consistent. Whether all of the blame can rightfully be placed on him is another day’s debate. Right now, Flacco must focus on bouncing back from a bad performance in Carolina. The Ravens’ franchise quarterback struggled to connect with receivers. As the game started to slip away, Flacco found himself forcing the ball more and more, until he ended up tossing two interceptions. Flacco’s performance against the Panthers was dismal, and the Ravens need him to bounce back this week.
To have any chance at defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens will need to see Flacco return to form. Not his typical form, however, but his form as January Joe, the elite caliber quarterback that puts the offense on his shoulders, and singlehandedly comes up with victories. January Joe has made appearances since his last playoff game in 2015, and the Ravens need him now more than ever. Even with the addition of Ty Montgomery, the Ravens rushing attack is bound to struggle behind the makeshift offensive line, and Joe Flacco will be tasked with leading most of the Ravens’ offensive efforts. He will need to spread the ball out effectively, consistently lead long drives, score points, and limit turnovers. The season and the future of the franchise rest on Flacco’s shoulders.
The Baltimore Ravens need a victory in this game more than any other. The race for the AFC North crown will be greatly impacted by this game. If Baltimore loses, the Ravens will nosedive to 4-5 with a divisional record of 1-3. With a loss, the Ravens would have an uphill battle to make the playoffs on a near impossible path. If the Ravens win, however, Baltimore would instantly catapult themselves back into the forefront of the division and wildcard race. The Ravens would enter the bye week at 5-4. The team would emerge to face the Bengals motivated and confident. This game will come down to the last few moments. As fans hold their breath, Justin Tucker will nail a 50+ yard field goal to win the game, 24-21, reigniting the Ravens in their question for playoff glory.